Her train will arrive fourteen, perhaps fifteen, minutes late. There should be a small florist beneath the station, if time hasn't taken it, so I will peruse the flower arrangements as I wait in order to busy my hands and mind. Edging on the cusp of sunflower season, the stalks will be fragile and the petals parched, and I will find humour in the idea of handing over a fistful of dying flowers and crooning, “this, my dear, is what became of us.” But I won't be able to call her “my dear”, so I will trail from the store empty-handed, gnawing on my gums and swallowing the words down with the metallic taste of blood.
The platform will be bustling when the train finally pulls in. The first thing I will see is her hair, curly and everywhere. There will be less than there used to be, but it will still manage to escape the restraints imposed by haphazardly placed pins. She will walk with a quick tempo, but then, she always has, so I will not let myself think anything of it. The tide of commuter bodies will pull her closer. In a beige woollen overcoat, heeled boots, and a straight back, she will look taller than I remember. Or, perhaps, I will just feel smaller.
She will almost pass me by and I will wonder, for a moment, if I should let her. How long would she walk Central Station? Five minutes? Ten? How long until she’d convince herself that I was just a figment of her imagination, conjured up to relieve boredom on her flight over as she stared through the porthole at the pale blue dawn. I will consider that perhaps it would be better to keep our paths separate so we forever remain the two girls locking fingers in the backseat, sitting on their hands until they tingled so they wouldn’t be caught by the rear-view mirror. But then her head will turn westward, and she will spot me leaning against the cement wall. The toast in my belly will grow arms and fingers, prying apart the organs in my gut and squeezing my thumping heart tighter. I will rehearse my words; “hello”s and “it’s been too long”s and “missed you”s rolling around my mouth before I settle on “Mary”.
She will smile, but with a smile reserved for photographs and strangers. I won’t be sure whether to extend my hand or embrace her and I will wish that I had bought the flowers just so the decision would be made for me. I will decide on a hug, as holding her hand will seem too personal a gesture to bury under the guise of a greeting. Her skin, which used to smell of oak body wash, will now be doused in something expensive and vanilla.
We will walk to a coffee shop, perhaps the one that sits quietly behind Hyde Park. As we walk, she will speak of her flight in a voice thick as honey and smooth to the ear. The familiarity will engulf me, and the details of the story will fade away. Only later will I wonder – was the person seated beside her a man flicking through a glossy home and garden magazine, or a woman escaping into the dystopian world of some dog-eared paperback? But perhaps it will not matter, perhaps she will just be weaving empty words to mask the terrifying silence settling beneath us.
As we order tea (her) and coffee (me), I will pretend that this is our local café, the one we used to visit every Sunday. I will recall how the first sip of coffee used to glide soothingly down my throat; dry from the fan. It spun through the nights because my body burned like a furnace when she touched it, heat pulsing from her fingertips as they ran down the camel-like nodes of my spine and traced the invisible string between my hip bones. The fan went ‘round and ‘round, not tiring as we did, our lungs stealing heavy breaths as we collapsed into ourselves. But then I will remember this is not our café. The barista will not call us by name, the wooden table by the window will not be ours and the woman to my left will keep her matchstick fingers far from me.
She will unbutton her overcoat and hang it carefully over the frame of the chair. Scatters of winter light will ease across the room and catch on her blouse, a strikingly deep navy that I will almost mistake for black. I may entertain the possibility that she bought it for me, as it will hold that never-been-worn scent of clothes racked in department stores and a stiffness that only loosens in the second wash. But hope never ages well, so I will push the notion to the back of my mind where all the other wistful thoughts patiently cue in wait to come true.
“How’s Melbourne?” I will ask.
She will make quick work of buttering a scone as she unceremoniously braids together the details of her life. Due dates, funerals, birthdays, meetings. She will speak of friends, ones with names I will not recognise, that she had picked up as trinkets during her travels. I may wonder how it felt to visit Kyoto without me, and if she ever thought back to the plans we whispered under candlelight as she roamed the gardens of the Imperial Palace. It won’t go unnoticed that she skims over the topic of relationships.
“What about you? Down for work, yeah?” She won’t look up as she asks, her eyes focused on watching the knife smooth over apricot jam as if she doesn't quite trust herself.
I will nod. “A conference on Monday.”
“Still in marketing?”
“God,” she will laugh and throw up her hands. “Look at us.”
I will laugh too, meeting her eyes for the first time. They will still be blue, like the bay in June when the water glistens so waders venture past the shoreline even though the chill stings their calves. I won’t be sure why I’m laughing; a brittle, spluttering sound that will ring in my ears and make me shudder. Look at us, working corporate jobs we swore we would never take? Look at us, falling so easily and awkwardly into the small talk we despised? Look at us, so convincingly reprising the role of strangers? But when I go to ask what she means, her gaze will shift to the children playing on the swing-set outside and I will cast my eyes downwards to watch the oozy butter and jam fuse together over the fluffy pastry instead.
A notification will light up her phone and her eyes will narrow to interpret the message on the white-blue screen. She will flip the device over. I will wonder if she did the same when I reached out the week before. A casual message, heavily infused with a what-are-the-chances airiness. Arlo said you were coming to stay with his sister next week. I’ll be in Sydney for work. Would like to see you. I hadn’t waited for a response before looking up flights for a business conference that did not exist.
As she devours the scone, I will recall the nights I ended tipsy on white wine and nostalgia, tapping the letters of her name into a search engine. The nights when I had scrolled through the same cropped photographs of birthdays and weddings, feeling intrusive but delighted that I was privy to these breadcrumbs of her life. I usually wound up staring at an image of her drinking a vodka soda, a leather jacket slung casually over one arm and the remnants of a coy smile haunting her lips, and was taken back to when we were in a bar together, celebrating a mutual friend that we didn't know we shared.
The bar had been busy, filled with intertwining strangers swapping their vices of whiskey and wine. Her eyes were laughing as she made conversation with unfamiliar faces, but the joke didn’t quite reach the barstool where I sat alone. I was the one who had suggested we keep our distance, as my drunken hands had a tendency to get overly brazen, and I had feared that they would work their way to her hips and pull her close to me in front of the crowd. But when she left, I still thought she would look back at me, that some magnetic tug would force her to turn her head. But she didn’t. She only looked forward as she slipped through the doorframe, the bell ringing as the evening eclipsed her, and then she was gone.
Outside, the rain was black and gold as it fell in and out of streetlight. I stood at the entrance of the bar, wondering if I should run after her like I was in one of those 80s films she liked. But the sidewalk was slick, and I was inundated by visions of myself skidding on the concrete, shattering my skull, red pooling around my head and clotting in my hair. So I kept my tread slow, the rain seeping through my ponytail until it lay flat against my neck, and let my legs walk themselves home.
I will sigh as I think back to that night and wonder if approaching her inside would have changed our ending. We could have danced until closing time, the last two left swaying to Cherry Wine as the dawn broke outside. We could have laughed as her head nestled into my shoulder, at the light-hearted jokes and at ourselves – realising how foolish we were to think anyone cared enough to watch. We could have left together, and I wouldn’t have feared falling, instead taking her arm to steady myself as we wandered hand-in-hand down the concrete path. But as I look up at the woman sitting in front of me, washing down her scone with a swig of tea, I will remind myself there is no point chasing what-ifs. Instead, I will absentmindedly fumble with my pocketed phone and wonder if it had been wise to tether myself to her with a digital gravity that prevented me from ever truly letting go.
“Do you want some?” She will ask, noticing how my eyes have settled on her cup and saucer. I won’t let it bother me that she has forgotten I am not fond of tea.
The earl grey teapot will be almost empty and when I decline her offer, she will pour what is left into her cup. I will notice that she adds sugar to her tea now and will wonder where she picked that up and whom she picked it up from. Was it the person who sent the message? Was that person waiting for her back in Melbourne? I will wonder if she lies next to them at night, their bodies paralleled under blankets, the same way ours were on the first night she slept beside me. Wasn’t that fun, fucking in the dark, her hands pressing down on my mouth so no one would hear how we felt. She called it love and I almost agreed, but hesitation caught the words on the back of my throat.
The next day, I had washed the sheets in a separate load so my roommate wouldn’t smell the shame. They spun ‘round and ‘round, like the fan, like her warm thumbs working the skin of my palm, like my restless thoughts on the nights that followed when I would lie awake, trying to slow my breathing so that it synchronized with the rhythmic ticks of the clock. My head was giddy with black and white static, like the end of a VHS, the same question on repeat. What if my bones weren’t built for this kind of love? What if they were?
“Should we walk for a bit?” I will ask. Her cup won’t yet be empty, but my mind will be full.
A distant part of me will hope that she asks what I’m thinking, in the way she used to when my eyes tranced over. In those moments, she would do anything to laugh me out of my thoughts, ruining herself to steal a smile from me. But she will either no longer notice or no longer care, replying only with a “let’s go.”
The children who were playing in the park will be gone. The swings will be empty, a ghostly wind driving them back and forth. I will grapple for something interesting to say but my buttery thoughts will slip through my fingers. I will wonder if she remembers the last time we stood in silence of this volume, after she echoed the question “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” by asking if two people can love if no one knows. The answer had sat in the corner of the room under the desk, neither of us willing to own it with our voice. The quiet lingered like a bad taste. Finally, she spoke, suggesting with a cool pressure that we shouldn’t fall quietly anymore. She wanted to stop hiding what we had, but I was terrified, so I traded back her records and sweaters in order to remain in my sanctuary of secrecy.
As we stroll through the fig trees of Hyde Park, I will remember the months that followed. I will remember looking for messages in bottles of Merlot to make sense of losing her. I will remember sitting on tiles, yearning for those fingers that were so perfectly trained to smooth the edges of me. I will remember holding on to a single thought, a promise to myself that when the fear was buried, I would meet with her and make it right. But so much time will have passed since then. As I walk beside her, ready to ask if she wants to try again, it will feel like I am simply checking off an item on a to-do list.
There will be pigeons pecking at abandoned cashews on the dirt ahead, but as we approach, the flock will suddenly scatter. In a moment of jolted alarm, her hand will reach for mine, old habits resurfacing. I will hold it, perhaps for a little too long. But then the flurries of grey and white will land and reconfigure into birds and as our fingers slowly separate I will no longer be able to ignore the thought that had been accumulating at the base of my skull all morning - it was different, we were different. The warm glow that used to pulsate through me when her fingers wrapped around mine or slid down the bridge of my nose as we giggled in the darkness, a feeling I now took to be love, will be gone.
She will turn to me as if to speak, but then, perhaps unsure how to translate her thoughts into words, she will continue walking. As she swings around, the mid-morning sun will filter through the foliage and streak across her face, returning a youthful flush to her skin. It will make her appear almost exactly as she did back then. Almost. But her eyes will be heavier and her mouth will be firmer and her sighs will be deeper and, as I continue looking, it will be hard to find anything left of the person I used to know.
I may wonder, briefly, if we had grown together – perhaps in one of the many apartments overlooking the park – would the changes have been more gradual, moving at a pace my love could keep up with? I will peer up at the window of a seventh-floor studio. By that window, we could have shared everything: Morning toast, forehead kisses, stories from work as we cooked pasta under dim stove light, constantly refining how best to fit into each other’s lives. But then a woman cradling a baby will appear behind the glass and I will look ahead at the footpath, sinking into the realisation that we didn’t grow together, instead, we grew apart.
“Do you ever think about it?” Her words will rupture the silence. There will be several notes to her voice: Vulnerability, hope, fear. When I don't answer, she will repeat herself: “Do you ever think about us?”
My body will fold into the park bench and she will take a seat beside me. My lips will ache to tell her about the times in the supermarket when her brand of almond milk was on special, or when Joni Mitchell came on as I was showering, or when I would see a girl with braided hair in the crowd and I would think of her, and remember it all, and wish I had stayed. But I will gently remind myself that we belong to the past and there is no point pretending otherwise.
“Sometimes, but not really.”
I won’t be able to read her expression. At first it may seem that her eyes are cold, like the water in the bay after someone first steps in. But then something will shift, and it will become apparent that she has been wading in that cold for far too long, leaving only a numbness creeping through her. Knowing there is nothing left to be said, someone will fumble out an excuse to leave. She and I will stand and venture our separate ways. As I aimlessly trudge south I will feel an urge to look back, but when I do she will have already disappeared into the distance, leaving me to wonder if she was ever even there.
I take a sip of white wine and reread the message I have typed. Arlo said you were coming to stay with his sister next week. I’ll be in Sydney for work. Would like to see you. I hit erase.
︎Jaimie is currently in her third year of studying Psychology. She finds inspiration for writing from black cats and sunlit kitchens, and has the utmost respect for anyone able to beat her in monopoly.︎